My Books of the Year selections are based on a combination of how much a book has stayed with me throughout the year, how much I’ve talked about it and/or recommended it, and how highly I rated it at the time I reviewed it. This year, I realized that the last of those factors actually counts the least for me as I compile this list–that is, it’s not a simple ranking.
With that said, I can’t leave my highest-rated book of 2014 out of the conversation entirely, and so I have to give a Special Mention to
The Book Thief (4.5 of 5)
Now that I have read The Book Thief, I will be putting it on one of my “keeper” shelves. I’ll probably read it again. And I’ll be telling anyone who hasn’t read it yet that they must fix that.
There are so many reasons one might hesitate to read The Book Thief, and I think they can easily be summed up in a sentence:
This is a novel about a girl in Nazi Germany during World War II, narrated by Death.
I also want to acknowledge two novels as The Books Everyone Loved Except Me:
I know many readers who have been thoroughly charmed by this novel. It’s understandable. But I have to confess that although I found The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry pleasant enough reading, its charms didn’t seem to work on me. I get the Book People appeal. My regret is that I didn’t find enough other appealing elements.
Because this novel is largely plot-driven, and the plotting is far more effective if the reader discovers certain things at the same time its protagonist does, there’s not much more I can tell you about We Were Liars, but I will tell you its twists did catch me by surprise. I was also surprised by the fairytale and Shakespearean elements Lockhart blends into the story, including the overt, if underdeveloped, references to King Lear. I was not surprised by the high quality of the writing, but I expected more substantial character and thematic development.
And now, without further digressions..
Each month, our editor at Shelf Awareness sends a list of galleys out to the reviewers so we have a chance to request any titles that look particularly good to us. I’ve not always taken advantage of that opportunity, but I did in 2014, and it definitely paid off. I got more 4-star books from that source this year than I ever have before, and these are the
Best Books I Got Paid to Read
Brutal Youth (also Debut of the Year)
It’s 1991, and St. Michael the Archangel High School in suburban Pittsburgh is in decline in every possible way. The cliquishness and jockeying for status that can be found at any high school are ramped up when the environment seems to sanction them, and at St. Michael’s, where some faculty and staff are returned graduates still living out their adolescent dramas, they’re not confined to the students...
Anthony Breznican leavens the bleakness of Brutal Youth’s premise with sharp, darkly comic dialogue that feels authentic to his well-drawn characters, particularly the adolescents. This coming-of-age novel is fast-moving, unsettling, and blends sympathy and satire with surprising effectiveness.
Many of One More Thing‘s short stories are very short–several run only a few lines–and even the longest barely reach twenty pages. However, word count has little to do with what makes them work.
B.J. Novak’s writing is intelligent but doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard to be clever, and I was struck by a touch of sweetness mixed into the funny–there’s a sense of compassion toward its subjects that gives the funny lines unexpected depth. Quite frankly, I expected more snark, and I’m glad Novak confounded that expectation.
In Against Football, Steve Almond is examining the ethical quandaries that football has created for him as a fan. Is it right that an activity that has been proven to cause long-term, irreversible physical and mental damage is promoted to boys and young men as a viable career path? How do “student athletes” and athletic scholarships support the educational mission of universities? Why does reverence for football players’ skills seem to give them a pass for antisocial–sometimes even criminal–behavior off the field?
Audiobooks of the Year
This was a great year for my reading genre fiction by ear, which has become my preferred format for reading it at all, and there were a lot of strong contenders for this section of my year-end list. My favorites included The Magicians Trilogy, The Martian, and The Cuckoo’s Calling and its sequel, The Silkworm, which narrowly takes Audiobook of the Year, Fiction.
The Silkworm isn’t particularly “literary” in and of itself, but it could be described as a “literary mystery” in that its plot involves authors, publishers, and assorted other book-business characters. The intrigue among this crowd is likely to appeal to readers who enjoy behind-the scenes glimpses “behind the books;” at any rate, it was an element that enhanced the fun I had reading this novel.
J.K. Rowling continues to add layers and dimensions to Strike and Robin; I’m enjoying getting to know these two even better, and they’re the reason I expect to stick with this series as long as Rowling sticks with writing as “Robert Galbraith”…and as long as Robert Glenister keeps giving these stories solid, engaging audiobook performances.
I choose to read some nonfiction in audio format for efficiency–I have the time to spend on it in the car–and I choose some nonfiction in audio just because I want to hear how it’s read to me. That second factor tends to apply more to the celebrity-memoir genre, and it’s the one that sealed my choice for Audiobook of the Year, Nonfiction.
Amy Poehler’s generosity and appreciation extend to those who have been her closest friends and colleagues—it goes along with valuing consideration and decent treatment of other people. Some of them—her BFF Tina Fey, her Parks and Recreation costars—get chapters of Poehler singing their praises; others—Parks and Rec showrunner Mike Schur, SNL “Weekend Update” co-anchor Seth Meyers, and Eileen and Bill Poehler, Amy’s mom and dad—were invited to collaborate with Poehler in writing chapters of the book themselves.
Poehler’s co-writers also read with her on the audio version of Yes Please, which also features cameos from Carol Burnett, Patrick Stewart, and Poehler’s dream narrator, Kathleen Turner. This cast, and a final chapter recorded in a live reading at the UCB Theatre in Los Angeles, make for an audio extravaganza rather than than a mere audiobook, and I found it thoroughly delightful from beginning to end.
Books of the Year
After I made fiction selections for other categories in this year-end list, I realized there wasn’t much other adult fiction I wanted to single out. For the first time, two YA novels are my
Books of the Year, Fiction
Fangirl is an unconventional coming-of-age college story crossed with a first-love story and flavored with modern Internet-based fan culture. I think that’s a pretty ambitious undertaking, and I think it succeeds at just about every level. I spent a few months lurking around a Harry Potter fanfiction site several years ago–reading only, never writing–and based on that brief experience, it seems to me that Rainbow Rowell really gets that angle of the story, and the fact that Fangirl has inspired a fanfiction archive of its own strikes me as a most appropriate accolade to that.
But even more than “getting” fandom, Rowell gets what makes characters fully realized and deeply human, and I especially appreciate her ability to depict complicated relationships in dialogue that rarely rings false or calculated. Audiobook narrator Rebecca Lowman (literally) gives voice to it all perfectly.
I have to admit that the primary plot thread of Going Over made me a little nervous–young love thwarted by feuding, with opposing political systems standing in for families? But I trust Beth Kephart as a storyteller; she hasn’t let me down yet, and she gives readers much more than that. The threats to Ada and Stefan’s future together are real, and really dangerous, and that’s never less than clear. What’s also clear is that their relationship doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Stefan delays his response to Ada out of his sense of responsibility to the grandmother he would be leaving behind; while she waits (with decreasing patience) for him, Ada becomes entangled with another endangered family on her own side of the Wall.
Kephart succeeds in creating two narrative voices, switching chapters between Ada and Stefan, without losing the distinctive flow and effective, evocative word choice that are trademarks of her writing. However, this time she’s applied those gifts to a story that is more than engaging–it’s genuinely gripping, and the last chapters had me racing along too fast to savor the writing as much as it deserves savoring. Building your novel up to an attempt to an escape from East Berlin makes it inherently suspenseful, I suppose, but it’s not just the plot that’s gripping–it’s the emotional stakes for the characters that Kephart’s language brings to life.
I think my best reading experiences in 2014–the most memorable and thought-provoking ones–came from nonfiction. Two remarkable books with a common theme rose to the top as my
Books of the Year, Nonfiction
I was most intrigued by two sections of the book that get into areas that are less often discussed in the context of parenthood: marriage and adolescence.
The ways in which children affect and reshape the relationship between their parents are many and mixed, and they aren’t always a big part of the social conversation about family, because they’re not entirely comfortable to consider. (That said, awareness of those effects may be part of why some couples decide to be “child-free.”)
The reasons we see less conversation among, and about, parents with adolescents may include the variety of experience–there are fewer commonalities and more complexity among teens than among babies and toddlers, and that extends to those living with and raising them–and concerns about autonomy. Regarding that last point, Jennifer Senior discloses that the “Adolescence” chapter is the only one in which she uses pseudonyms in the personal stories she recounts, but the stories matter more than the names associated with them. Since this is the phase of parenthood I’m closest to right now–my stepson, the youngest of the three kids my husband and I have between us, is just starting high school this year–this chapter had the highest “click” factor for me, including some discussion about connections between having teenagers at home and parental “midlife crisis” behavior that I really wish I’d been aware of about fifteen years ago.
The childhood immunizations that many of us grew up with have become controversial among 21st-century middle-class American parents. Vaccination fears may have initially been sparked by a now-discredited study linking the MMR vaccine with autism, but questioning of the routine vaccination of young children has expanded to the point where some parents are refusing it. Becoming a mother herself exposed Eula Biss to that questioning, and neither her upbringing as a physician’s daughter nor her training as a researcher immunized her against doubts about vaccinating her own child. However, her personal history equipped her to try to address those fears and doubts by gathering information.
Biss’ questions and motherly worries provide the framework for On Immunity, but the heart of the book is an enlightening and thoroughly approachable discussion of epidemics, disease prevention, and “public health.” Her blending of the topical and the personal yields a scholarly, literary motherhood memoir that is affecting and effective.
I’ve made a simple list of the books mentioned here on LibraryThing. I shared some 2014 reading stats in infographic form earlier this week on the blog. My full review archive is linked just below the blog header–you’re welcome to visit and browse it anytime!